Saturday, May 11, 2019
Sonny and Cher
I was blathering with a reader about birds when he mentioned something that froze my blood. He referred to a "life list," implying that I had one, since I liked to watch birds. I told him that I certainly do not have a life list and never will. One of the joys of animals in general and birds in particular is that they reflect the natural world, and what is more human than turning the observation of that world into some kind of contest, where you tally the various birds you've seen, keeping score, hoping to best your peers. Pass.
As thrilling as it can be to spot an unfamiliar species, it also is a strain. You see something unfamiliar at the feeder. The binoculars are grabbed for. Attention is focused. Details are noted to facilitate the process of later trying to identify said bird, all the while under time pressure, because it might flit away at any moment and be gone.
You know what's a lot less stressful? Ducks. Common as dirt mallard ducks, "the urban duck of the Chicago area" according to my "Birds of Chicago." Of course that is not a distinction particular to Chicago—mallards are among the most widespread birds in the world, and throughout history. I did a deep dive (sorry) into ducks here last spring.
The boy duck—we've named him Sonny—has the distinctive iridescent green head of the male mallard, called drakes. The female, whom we naturally dubbed Cher, will not only lay eggs, but later must teach her ducklings to swim: they'll drown otherwise.
The duo have taken up residence over the past few weeks in our backyard, which floods.
They're always there. A little shy, they can't manage the dexterity of flying up to my feeder, so they wait patiently below for the seeds that smaller birds jostle out (oh, okay, and for the big scoopfuls of feed that I toss onto the ground for them, even though this is also a feast for squirrels). Ducks like grain, so much so that they've become agricultural pests.
"Mallard"—that's a curious word. The Oxford English Dictionary throws up its hands, a rare show of defeat: "of obscure origin." Though to the OED, that means they trace a first usage only back to 1330, and a paragraph of conjecture contains the priceless sentence, "The bird may under this name have figured as a personage in some lost example of the Germanic 'beast-epic.'" We'll have to save plunging into the beast-epic for another day.
Cher is more timid—she retreats to the far margin of the yard when I show up. Sonny is almost accustomed to me to me, edging back to the food even before I've finished whatever chore took me to the backyard. There is also a third duck, another male, lurking nearby. We haven't named him yet, but probably should. "Gregg Allman" comes to mind. Too obvious? I suppose. But then, they're ducks. Obvious is kinda what they do.